Stone(5)By: Anne Marie Winston
"A proposition?" Her eyes lit with interest. "Are we talking about a job here?"
"In a sense." He hesitated, then plunged ahead. "Are you serious about paying me back?"
"Yes," she said immediately.
God, he hadn't been this nervous since the first day he'd stood in front of the assembled employees of his father's company for the first time. "I could use your help with something," he said slowly.
Faith's gaze searched his expression, clearly looking for clues. "You need my help?"
He nodded. Then he took a deep breath and leaned forward. "I need a wife."
She stared at him, apparently sure she hadn't heard him correctly. He couldn't blame her. As soon as the words were out, he'd decided he was crazy. "You need what ?"
"A wife." He could hear the embarrassment and impatience in his tone and he forced himself to take deep, slow breaths. Calming breaths.
She spread her hands in confusion and her smooth brow wrinkled in bewilderment. "But how can I help you with that? I doubt I know anyone who—"
"Faith." His deep voice stopped her tumbling words. "I'd like you to be my wife."
Her eyes widened. Her mouth formed a perfect O of surprise. She put a hand up and pointed to herself as if she needed confirmation that she hadn't lost her mind, and her lips soundlessly formed the word, "Me?"
He nodded, feeling an unaccustomed heat rising into his face. "Yes. You."
Stone couldn't have shocked her more if he'd asked her to stand and start stripping. Faith stared at him, convinced he'd lost his mind.
"Not," he said hastily, "a real wife. Let me explain." He took a deep breath. He was looking down at his drink instead of at her, and she was surprised to see a dull bronze flush rising in his cheeks. "My mother is beginning to think about retirement. She's offered.me.,her company, but before she'll turn it over she wants me to be married."
"Why would she do that?" She was completely baffled. What kind of mother would put her own child in a position like that?
"She thinks I need to settle down and give her some grandchildren." He snorted. "Although I can't imagine why. She's not exactly the most maternal person in the world."
She wondered if he heard the note of resentment and what else? Longing, perhaps, for something that hadn't been, in his voice. "Forcing you into marriage seems a little…extreme," she said carefully.
His face was grim. "My mother's a control freak. This is just one more little trick she's playing to try to arrange my life to suit herself." He bared his teeth in what she felt sure he thought was a smile. "So this time I intend to outfox her."
"What happens if you refuse to get married?"
He shrugged. "I guess she liquidates or sells. I didn't ask." He leaned forward, his eyes blazing a brilliant blue in the candlelight. "It would mean a lot to me, Faith. I want to keep Smythe Corp. a Lach-lan holding."
He stared at her, clearly taken aback. "Why?" When she nodded, he sat back, as if to distance himself from the question. "Well, because it's a good business decision."
"But surely there are other companies out there that fit the bill. Why this company?"
"Because it's my heritage. My great-grandfather founded Smythe Corp. It would be a -shame to see it pass out of the family."
"T — -
There was something more there, she "realized as she registered the tension in his posture, something she couldn't put her finger on, that underlay his stated reasons for wanting that particular company. But she had a feeling he wouldn't take kindly to being pushed any further.
"Will you do it?" he asked.
"I don't know." She chewed her lip. "It seems so dishonest—"
, "Any less dishonest than trying to force me into marriage just because she's decreed it's time?" he demanded. For the first time,.his control slipped and she caught a glimpse of the desperation lurking beneath his stoic facade. But he quickly controlled it, and when he spoke, his voice was calm again. "It would only be for a year," he said, "or a bit more. Strictly temporary. Strictly platonic. Except that we'd have to convince my mother that it's a real marriage. I'm not asking you to lie about anything that would hurt anyone." He stared deep into her eyes. "Think about that company, Faith. It's been in my family for three generations. If it's sold to.an outsider, who knows what kind of restructuring might occur? Hundreds of people might lose their jobs."
She frowned at him. "That's emotional blackmail."
He grinned ruefully. "Did it work?"
She stared at him, her thoughts crashing over each other in chaotic patterns. "Would we live together?"
He nodded. "You'd have to move into my place for the duration. But we'd get an annulment when the time comes. And I'd expect to pay you for your time." . -…-
Pay you . She was almost ashamed of the mercenary thoughts that rushed through her head. Practical, she told herself, not mercenary. Not much. She couldn't possibly let him pay her. Not after all he'd done for her. This would be a good way to do something for him in return. Besides, if she moved in with him, she wouldn't have to keep renting her apartment.
She could go back to school, get a lot farther along in her education more quickly, if she didn't have liv-ing expenses. She only had a year and a half to go. Which meant that she'd be able to start repaying him sooner. Because regardless of what he said, she was going to pay back everything he'd done for her and her mother in the years since her father had died. And suddenly, that goal didn't seem so totally out of reach.
A profound relief washed over her and she closed her eyes for a moment.
"Are you all right?" He reached across the table and cupped her chin in his hand.
She swallowed, very aware of the warmth of his strong fingers on her skin. His touch sent small sizzling streamers of excitement coursing through her and she suppressed a shiver of longing. "Yes." But it came out a whisper. She cleared her throat. "But you can't pay me."
He released her chin, his brows snapping together. "Of course I'll—"
"No. I'm in your debt already."
"All right," he said promptly. "How about this: if you marry me for the time I need to get Smythe Corp., I'll consider all the debt you imagine you owe me to be paid in full." . -_.i? 't't •
She froze for a moment as hope blossomed. Then she realized she couldn't possibly make a deal like that. It wouldn't be fair to him. She started to shake her head, but before she could speak, Stone raised a hand.
"Hear me out. Marriage would be a sacrifice. You'd lose a year of your freedom. You'd be expected to attend social functions with me and play the part of hostess when we entertain. We'd have to convince my mother it was a real marriage for real reasons."
She didn't ask what he meant, but she could feel a blush heating her own face now as she sat silently considering his proposal.
"It's a fair deal," he urged. "An exchange of favors, if you like."
She wasn't so sure of that. Taking care of her mother and her for eight years weighed a lot more on her scale than one measly year of marriage did. But when she met his gaze, she could see the iron determination there. If she didn't agree to this, he was liable to start in about paying her again.
And there was another factor, one that outweighed even her concerns about her finances. A moment ago, she'd seen naked panic in his eyes at the thought of losing that company. It wasn't financial, she was sure. But it was terribly important to Stone for some reason. And because she'd discerned that, she knew what her answer had to be.
"All right," she said hoarsely.'"It's a deal. But there are three conditions."
He only raised one eyebrow.
"I'd like to continue with my education—"
"You don't need to finish school." Impatience quivered in every line of his big body. "You'll be doing me an enormous favor with this marriage. The least I can do is settle a sum on you at the end of the year. You won't need to work at all." .
"I want to work," she insisted. "And I want to go back to school."
"You won't be able to work," he said. "Can you imagine what the press would do with that?"
Unfortunately she could. As one of the richest men in the country, Stone dealt with a ridiculous amount of intrusive press.
"You'd have to consider being my wife your job," he said. "But I'll pay your tuition if you insist on taking classes."
"I do," she said firmly. "I'll reenroll for the summer session."
"All right. Now what's the third thing?"
She hated that she had to ask him for help with anything, but she had no choice. And it wasn't for her. "My mother," she said quietly. "The cost of her care—"
"Is not a problem for me," he said firmly. Then he leaned forward. "In fact, if you like, we could move your mother into my home. There's an apartment on the main floor for live-in help but I've never had anyone live in. She could stay there."
It was a generous offer and a generous thought, even if he was doing it for selfish reasons. She swallowed, more tempted by the thought than she should be. It would make her life much easier in many ways. And she'd be able to see her mother every day, perhaps even help with her care